Challenges Surmounted…So Far

Going on two years since my last post, I’m rattling, shaky, and loose in some places, but I’m still rolling forward.  Slowly.

I could be accused of living in my own world entirely, and it would be true.  But my response to such accusations has always been, “Why not?”  When forced to choose between fantasy and grim reality, with its thousands of worries, fears, shames, and dysfunctions, who could blame me, in my fragility, for moving bag and baggage into the last refuge available, which, unlike most others I have experienced, never lets me down?  (Plus it’s free.)

I’ve spent the past two years sequestered in that refuge of creation and self-expression, and it, along with my faith, has kept me alive.

Along with appearing successfully as Blanche Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (yes, you read that right), the main creative project I worked on through this time was Flickers, the epistolary short novel chronicling an interval–very similar to the challenging one I faced and continue to face—in the life of the protagonist, Philip Griffin, a warehouse packing clerk, living and struggling in the early twentieth century.  Deeply shy, even avoidant; sorely lacking in self-confidence and with no idea who he is, Philip’s dreary life takes a dramatic turn when he falls in love with Lucinda Styles, the niece of his sister’s employer, Eugenia Styles.  Lucinda is staying with Philip’s sister, Cora, prior to her arranged marriage to Edgar Bothwicke, CEO of Bothwicke Printing—which will allow for a merger between Bothwicke Printing and Styles Publishing; a merger necessary for the survival of the latter company.  It goes without saying that Eugenia Styles is hell-bent on seeing both the marriage and the merger through—but the first hurdle in her path is, naturally, Philip’s instant infatuation with Lucinda, whom he views as his female fantasy incarnate.  Unsettled in his complacent existence by these new, unfamiliar emotions, Philip soon finds himself unable to reconcile the fact of Lucinda’s inaccessibility to the point that he retreats into a dream world; in this case, the world of silent films, in which, like Walter Mitty, he sees himself as the hero of his own personal swashbuckling adventure/thriller tales.  How much Philip’s romanticized visions of those around him—particularly Lucinda and her unappealing suitor—actually mirror the characters themselves (or do not) is the theme of the story.

I admit that the completed (not finished, never finished) manuscript of Flickers (so-called due to this nickname for early movies) is much darker than it would probably need to be.  What could have been a sensitive portrait of a young man’s attempts to cope with unfulfilled fantasies morphed somewhere along the line into a blood-and-thunder melodrama typical of the times in which the story is set.

THE-UNKNOWN

And that is exactly the way I planned it.

Come on, now…this is Craig, after all. 

I’ve never been content to let well-enough alone and tell stories about real people living real lives and facing real problems.  I’ve always had to push it—to increase, as with a digital photograph, the brightness and contrast of gray truth to the level of stark black-and-white.  Larger-than-life, oft-times outrageously campy…that’s my style.  So lynch me.

Which is why I’ll never succeed in the world of “serious” writing.  This was affirmed to me about a year and a half ago by a professor of creative writing at my alma mater, with whom I conferred about continuing my education in this field.  His (not unkind) response was, at least the way I heard it, “Don’t waste your time”.  In essence, I am not a highbrow writer, I was never meant to be a highbrow writer, and I never will be a highbrow writer.  And that’s okay, because having nodded through some highbrow writing in my time, I don’t really want to be a highbrow writer.  Yes, those MFAs and Ph.Ds might get published in the occasional moldy collegiate journal, but, aside from a few other MFAs and Ph.D’s…who really gives a shit?

Dollanganger01_FlowersInTheAtticOn the other hand, the 1979 cult bestseller Flowers in the Attic, by the late V.C. Andrews, is still in print.  You do the math.  Let me tell you something—I like that story.  I liked the book, the 1987 movie, and the recent Lifetime remake.  I know it’s rather over-the-top and creepy in its subject matter and presentation, but that being said, it’s a terrific story about survival.  A story about surviving as a child locked away in the attic of a great mansion, abandoned by your mother and abused by a crazy grandmother, is still a story about survival.  And it happens all the time.  Just look at the news.  Different strokes for different folks.  I say tomato…etc, etc.  That’s my kind of literature, with a beginning, middle, and a satisfying end.  Sure, I admire people like, say, Flannery O’Connor, but I could never write anything to approach her stories like The Enduring Chill or Greenleaf.  I could never hope to achieve anything on the level of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, or Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome (a personal favorite), or even five levels below them, so why knock myself out trying?  Why not, instead, write in my own individual style of gothic surrealism and if deeper themes emerge, fine.  Even with Flickers, the subtext is there despite the melodramatic trappings—they don’t hurt it at all.  So, again, I ask…why not?

It’s yet another way in which I am learning to accept my own limitations.  Fiction will always be my first love, although I have done some autobiographical writing which I would daresay is a lot better…but fiction is just flat-out more fun.

The original idea for Flickers was to illustrate it with photos of scenes in miniature, suitable to the silent film era, as actual silent film slides; a concept in keeping with the theme of Philip’s vicarious obsession with the movies he imagines himself and others in.  I’ve retained that concept, but have decided to go a step further and use real people for these shots, actors from the local talent pool, appropriately dressed on real-life “sets”.  It would basically be like shooting something less than a movie to create something more than a graphic novel.  I hope.  Anyway…next year I’d like to try it.Fairbanks-300x233

The other creative project which kept me busy throughout the latter half of 2013 was building my own chess set, something I had wanted to do for a long time.  The concept, like that of Flickers, revolved around the world of vintage movies.

mms_picture (7)

I made half the pieces to represent the forces behind putting together a film—producer, director, editor, and so on.  The other half is populated by the actors in the film.  The pawns are framed script pages (moviemakers) and, on the thespian side, shots from the “film” being made, featuring the actors in various individual scenes.

I know…I’m not a character on The Big Bang Theory, but I should be.  Anyway…I kind of resemble Sheldon with facial hair.  Or so I’ve been told.

The chess set turned omms_picture (10)ut to be one of the centerpieces of my art studio, Creations by Craig.  Yes, for six months I had an art studio that I moved into in late March and opened at the first of May.  I had been thinking about taking space at a local gallery for some time, and when I learned of opportunities to rent at the gallery, this particular space hit me immediately as perfect for two reasons.  One, the colors.  Red, black and white is a recurring color scheme in my visual work, and that is exactly how the room was painted.  The second reason was that it had just been vacated by a member of my church.  Those reasons were enough for me.  On its official opening May second, I made three sales, which, as I understand, is very good for this area.

I closed Creations by Craig in September of 2014.  I did this basically because I found that I don’t like doing art in a studio.  I like doing it at home.  Also, in the Canton, Ohio, area, there is no sustained interest in paying for art.  Not enough to justify paying the monthly studio rent.  Lesson learned, no regrets.

Looking ahead, I know what I would like to accomplish next year, namely laying out the background of a new concept, The Eerie Series. (More on that later.)  Over the summer and early fall, I realized an idea which has simmered for a few years, and only recently worked itself into a story that I felt compelled to write as soon as possible, as a play.  Titled The Blue Candle, it combines my ever-present goth ambiance with something of a spiritual undertone.  In short, I tried getting deep while staying fun, even a little deeper than I did with Flickers.  Maybe I have hopes of ending up highbrow after all.  Nah.

And now, aside from the Eerie Series, there are my last few major projects coming to completion; along with the editing of Flickers, the backstage murder mystery Closing Night, which has been picked up for local production in August, 2015 , as Below the Surface and Dot’s Journey were so successfully mounted inthe spring and fall of 2013, respectively.  (For more information on Dot’s Journey, look under Thinking Man’s Theatre.) 

SONY DSC

A rehearsal still from “Dot’s Journey”, my film noir take on THE WIZARD OF OZ, performed by the Canal Fulton Players aboard the St. Helena III in 2013.

I didn’t mention Below the Surface being produced?  I guess I didn’t.  That was my first full-length play, which I started writing in 1997 and finally “released” in staged reading form in 2011.  Like most of my other work, it treads the same tightrope between legitimate and melo-drama in its tale of a super-dysfunctional family, a sudden murder, plenty of psychological suspense, and just plain psychos.  The play was picked up by the Victorian Players of Youngstown, who gave it about the best, most respectful, and successful a first production as one could wish for, even unto asking me whether one of the characters would have magazines on her coffee table. 

Victorian Players Live Commuitinty Theater

A rehearsal shot from my play “Below the Surface” at the Victorian Players Theatre, Youngstown, Ohio, 2013

As with Dot’s Journey, the experience proved both unforgettable and highly therapeutic.  And humbling.  And nerve-wracking.  To sit in the midst of a paying audience, watching such talented people bringing my work to life; to know that they invested many hours of their time and energy into something that only existed because of me…that was and is heady stuff.  They will never know how much it meant at that particular time.  I can never thank them enough.

The Pack, the 272012 project which began in a blaze of ambition as my first “consigned” work, has now been quietly retired, unreleased.  This graphic novel, or Film in Print, is problematic to me because while there are good things in it, I feel that the whole is less than the sum of its parts.  A companion piece to Flickers, which followed on the heels of it, this Depression-era story of a young music teacher dismissed from his job for a suspected affair with a student never really clicked with me, in spite of my every effort to personalize it.  I was eventually informed by the party interested in publishing it that his publishing days were over for the moment.  Bummer.  As I indicated, there are some really good scenes and characters in it, but I am not sure that the story was entirely within my range or that I was completely up to realizing its demands visually.  Maybe it’s better than I think.  I don’t know.  That’s the curse of being a critic of one’s own work.

In the meantime, I launched a few smaller projects that turned out to be just what I needed—not demanding, but unique enough to fulfill the creative urge while I recharged my batteries.  First, I indulged another long-harbored interest—writing puppet plays.  I’ve always adored puppets, and when I read that one of my prime inspirations, the late Edward Gorey, wrote and produced these along with his gargantuan body of other work, I felt the time was right to give it a go.  So I wrote three short plays around Mr. Teeth and the other puppets I made a few years ago…and they turned out very well, at least in my regard.  I would love to see them mounted someday…maybe as the centerpiece amid an evening of old-fashioned vaudeville acts.  I even had fun with the titles; Mr. Teeth and the Quagmire Affair…Mr. Teeth and the Befuddlement of the Fallen Star…Mr. Teeth and the Canine Caper, or, the Bride of Mr. Teeth.

The other small project, also newly published through lulu.com, is a storybook based on the short film The Terrible Mr. CinderellaTeeth, which I had great fun making in 2011.  This time around, the story features the puppets I made in the lead roles, intermingled with the secondary characters from the film version.   What a gas it’s been!  Mr. Teeth returns to terrorize the beautiful Angelica Morningsong as The Girl and Justin Evergood as The Boy, with support from Madame Nightshade as The Girl’s Mother.  What this really is, is a fulfillment of a creative yen from childhood to make puppets and stories around them similar to those I found in a series of lavishly illustrated puppet “board books” which retold the classic fairy tales.  As a little tyke, I was utterly awed by the detail of these puppet characters, exquisitely costumed and carefully posed amid beautifully detailed miniature scenery.  Alas, I only ever had one of the books—Pinocchio—and had to wait until a year ago to finally obtain the others in the collection through ordering them used online.  From these I received my inspiration to remake Mr. Teeth in the mold of the puppet storybooks that I spent long summer afternoons as a child of seven yearning for.  Some dreams do come true!

MrT

The Terrible Mr. Teeth is now published through lulu.com and is available for purchase here.

terrarium

Also last summer, I dabbled in the art of terrariums and assemblage.  Terrariums have intrigued me since childhood—something about the idea of a miniature world preserved under glass always has; hence, my fascination with dioramas—and about a month ago I decided to try my hand at it.  I started simple, after doing the requisite research on exactly how to go about it, and these first three turned out rather well, if I do say so myself.  As always, the scenes are tinged with touches of the morbid, mysterious, and macabre.  What else would you expect from Creations by Craig?  (BTW, the terrarium at left is not one I created, but it is very much in the style I aim for.  More pics to come as I continue to build them.)

Assemblage is not a new endeavor for me, but it was only in the last year that I learned it had a name, this juxtaposing of various mixed media to present an overall shared theme.  I have long been telling stories through mixed media, but it wasn’t until the artist Joseph Cornell came to my attention, with his fascinating “boxes”, or collage art under glass, that I saw a new realm of possibilities for it.  Exploring his work (seen below) provided a huge dose of fresh inspiration.

Joseph-Cornell-Untitled-Medici-Boy-1942-1952

An artist’s work is never done.  Thank God.

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About RetroMan

My three greatest inspirations as an artist are, in no particular order, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Alfred Hitchcock. Their films and their personal lives were the reason I started writing and creating back when I was a very lonely and misunderstood teenager. I am at present commencing to hammer out a career-primary or secondary-as an author/illustrator. I already have several books self-published and I've included links to where those are available. Thanks for stopping by! View all posts by RetroMan

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